By Jenniffer Weigel
It’s a Friday morning in Courtroom 206 at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, and Associate Judge Rosemary Grant Higgins is getting an update on the progress of one of her cases.
“It looks like you’ve really taken to the program,” Higgins says, shuffling through reports as she looks down from her bench at the woman standing in front of her. “Do you have anything to say to the court?”
The woman, who had pleaded guilty to prostitution and successfully received treatment and counseling for drug addiction through the WINGS program (Women in Need of Gender Specific Services), turns to face several other women from Cook County Jail who sit handcuffed in blue or pink jumpsuits.
“Until you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, you’re never going to change your life,” she says with confidence, making eye contact with the members of the group who will look at her. “No judge or sheriff is going to make it happen. You need to be sick and tired emotionally, sick and tired physically, and sick and tired spiritually.”
As the defendant walks out of court, Higgins leads a round of applause, something she does for all of the women who make significant progress through WINGS, a program at the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Criminal Division that was launched in 2011.
Higgins was part of the team that developed the program, which included private attorneys, state’s attorneys, probation officers, social service providers and community-based treatment providers. The intensive two-year program gives women who are arrested and plead guilty to prostitution charges the opportunity to attend rehabilitation and receive counseling and job training.
“Monday through Thursday, I deal with other crimes, murder, rapes, robberies, drugs, but Fridays is dedicated to WINGS,” says Higgins, 60.
One of eight children and raised in Chicago, Higgins earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Xavier University in 1975.
She worked for the city’s Department of Human Services as the director of youth services bureaus while going to school at night to earn her law degree from John Marshall Law School in 1985.
Two years later she became a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, and in 2003 became a judge, assigned to the Circuit Court.
“My parents would always discuss what was right and what was wrong and encouraged us to give back,” she says. “I was raised to accept challenges with a good, strong sense of justice.”
Of the 370 women who have participated in WINGS since it launched, more than 100 women have completed the program successfully, according to records, which Higgins considers to be a “major success.”
“These women are probably one of the most marginalized groups of people that I have encountered in my time either as a prosecutor or as a judge,” she says, adding that she and her staff underwent intensive training “to become familiar with the trauma issues these women face and the kinds of treatment that can be most effective.”
Divorced and living in Chicago, Higgins has three children in their 20s. The following is an edited conversation.
Q: Why do you think you always had such a strong sense of justice growing up?
A: We were always fighting as kids. Negotiating those fights required a good strong sense of justice! And my parents (Elizabeth and Jack Grant) were both very politically astute and talked about issues on a regular basis at the dinner table. It required attention to humanity.
Q: Do you ever get frustrated by the things you can’t change or the people you couldn’t help?
A: I’ve been frustrated at times by some of the circumstances where these people have relapses and commit new crimes. These women have greater problems than any of the populations that I deal with. They have more trauma, according to the literature from DePaul University (a resource during the staff training), than an Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan veteran who has gone through two tours of duty. They have serious issues.
Q: Was it hard to launch WINGS?
A: It was exceedingly difficult at first. We were only supposed to have 25 women. Most cases are from the city of Chicago. We had no funding (and) limited resources. (When WINGS was founded) prostitution was a felony, which has a potential sentence of one to three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Now, since July 2013, it’s a misdemeanor (and the program eventually will be phased out). But it’s not retroactive, so we have to complete the program we started. Over time we developed our own book of resources and went to every one of the community-based treatment programs that would accept our women, either for alcohol or drug treatment or for trauma counseling.
We also developed Prostitution Anonymous courses and mentoring programs so the women who have graduated can inspire those who are in treatment.
I’ve mailed my protocol to judges all over the country so they could look at what we’ve accomplished and then try to develop it further in the context of their own justice system.
Q: How important is nurturing for healing?
A: Nurturing is critical for healing, especially for these women because they have had so little of it in their lives. As a group, as a team, we nurtured them, but I don’t want you to think that in any way we were enabling them.
We were tough when they relapsed or tricked again. It’s about understanding what causes the behaviors. Most of them have experienced sexual trauma and rape. All of them have been beaten, most of them many times.
They almost all have alcohol and drug addiction, even if it’s not current. No one really wanted to be near these women. They were treated like pariahs, but we treat them with respect, and that’s probably the first real respect they’ve gotten in their lives. It’s almost impossible for them to achieve success without having a dedicated group that is understanding of their setbacks.
When they are succeeding, we applaud their success. They look forward to that acknowledgment. I only give hugs at the end when they graduate.
Q: Can you share a success story?
A: Yvette Brooks Godley. She had some cooking skills, so when she finished our program, (she) was trying to get a job. With many of these women, because of their background, it’s very difficult to become employed. But she went to the local chicken franchise and said, “I’ll work for free for 12 hours.” She worked for 13 hours, and he hired her.
Ultimately, she started to make her banana pudding and pineapple upside-down cake, and he started to sell it at the franchise. Two other franchises picked up her products and now she is a part-time manager.
(When asked about her experience with WINGS, Godley says, “I wouldn’t be where I am today (without it). Judge Higgins inspired me, every time I saw her. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”)
Q: The hardest part of about your job?
A: The emotional investment. I come away very drained at the end of the day.
Q: How do you deal with that?
A: I do yoga. I try to meditate, but a lot of times I fall asleep! I travel. If I could be anywhere in the world, it would be Ireland, in Tipperary. I’ve been there more times than I can count. I’ve been going there since I was 15. My grandfather was from there.
Q: What book is on your nightstand?
A: I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt. I know there was a lot of controversy on whether it ought to have been a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I thought the depth of characters justified the Pulitzer Prize. I also have a book of daily meditations on my nightstand.